NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Vermont’s congressional delegation, like most politicians in Washington and around the country, are bracing for a Supreme Court decision on President Barack Obama’s health care reform law that will impact millions of Americans.
The president signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic policy achievement, into law in March 2010. Opponents have been working to undermine it ever since. Republicans in Congress have vowed to "repeal and replace" what they derisively refer to as Obamacare. In fact, House Republicans have voted numerous times to repeal various parts of the law. Those efforts have been stymied by Senate Democrats, however.
Others, meanwhile, including a majority of states, have filed suit claiming the law’s individual mandate is unconstitutional -- a question the Supreme Court is expected to soon decide.
The law requires all Americans that are not covered by an employer’s health insurance plan, Medicare or Medicaid to purchase health insurance on their own. Those that do no acquire insurance must pay a penalty. The law also created health care exchanges that states are required to set up that will offer subsidized health insurance plans for low-income people.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late March. A decision on whether Congress has the authority to require Americans to purchase health insurance is expected from the court within the next two weeks. The Court’s decision could have a long-lasting impact on congressional and executive branch authority.
Lower courts have sent mixed signals about the law. Some federal appellate courts have found the mandate to be unconstitutional. Others, though, have upheld the law, including some conservative judges.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the health care law was "an honest effort" to address mounting health care costs and provide coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. But, Welch said there is little confidence among Democrats in the conservative-leaning high court.
"The health care system was badly broken before health care reform passed. In the event the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional, we’re back to a system driven by insurance companies that was badly serving Americans," Welch said. "There’s not been lot of confidence in this Bush V. Gore court. They chose to elect George W. Bush, They ruled on Citizens United."
Still, Welch said he believes the law meets constitutional muster. "I think it would be an enormous stretch to overturn what is fundamentally a legislative decision. I hope, but don’t predict, the court will uphold the law," he said.
The Supreme Court could strike down all or just parts of the complex law. Striking down the law would roll back gains for millions of Americans, including those who can now remain on a parent’s health care plan until age 26, Welch said. The law also prevents insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. And striking the law down would cease free preventative care for seniors.
"This would all happen in the face of a very tough economy. I think people would really react to the loss," Welch said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said a decision by the court to strike the law down would negatively impact the country and people who are already relying on some of the law’s benefits.
In Vermont, about 4,200 people under the age of 26 without employer sponsored insurance still have insurance because of the law. Additionally, thousands of seniors are receiving Medicare rebates to help cover prescription drug costs, and more than 81,600 people in the state received free preventative care in 2011 because of the law, Leahy said.
"The Affordable Care Act will protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, including children and seniors. Its benefits are already being felt by thousands of Vermonters. The cost of our health care system is unsustainable, access to quality care has not been what it should be, and this historic law will make significant improvements in a costly patchwork system that has left millions of Americans without insurance. The Supreme Court, by its own precedent and under the express constitutional authority granted to Congress, should uphold the law."
Welch said he would like to see a push for a Medicare-for-all health care system if the Supreme Court rejects the law. But, Democrats have spent little time planning for that event.
"In all candor, there’s not a lot of talk about what to do because there’s not a lot we can do. The Supreme Court will make a decision," he said.